If I were faced with the task of formulating a basis for normal human communication in one phrase, I would say: “Fear being right.”
Of course, on the one hand, it is important for a person to feel that he is right. Then he sounds convincing, interesting and honest. On the other hand, the absence of such a feeling often causes uncertainty. After all, everyone knows that a diffident and indecisive person (in other words, a mumbler) is more annoying than anyone else.
However, there is another side to it, and it is quite unpleasant. Since the awareness that you are right, in addition to confidence, leads to superciliousness, a sense of superiority, and arrogance. A person who is right often allows himself to be rude, cruel, cynical and merciless. Let’s take a closer look at our sins, inappropriate actions, and bad deeds. For which ones does our conscience torment us the most? Which ones resulted in the most dramatic conflicts? Which ones caused grave offences and eventually provoked quarrels and even enmity? The answer is: the offences we caused when we were absolutely sure we were right. The feeling that we are right makes us lose all constraints, leads to extremes and justifies sin. Therefore, it must be treated with the same caution as any other feeling, with the awareness that even the best in us is not alien to vice.
And caution should not begin while a dispute or a conflict is in process. It is too late to remember it in the heat of argument or during a discussion. To prevent the feeling of being right from spoiling our lives or those of our neighbors we should at least learn to tell the truth without doing harm to our neighbor and without hurting ourselves.
To start with, not every truth is actually truth. Truth in its purest form is always the same—it is the truth of God. There are as many human truths in the world as there are people. Obviously, everyone believes in his own truth and in this respect, he is absolutely honest with himself. However, it is equally obvious that individual personal truth remains true only for those who believe it. And the others are the last to answer for it. Why should I care about someone else’s truth when I have my own? And, ultimately, what’s the point, as the Russian poet, translator and literary critic Vladislav Khodasevich (1886–1939) wrote, in stirring up “an idle argument about petty truths?”
Hence the rule: to remember that what I consider to be the truth is my “personal truth”, as it were. It may indeed be the truth, at least in my eyes. It may as well contain empty truths. But regardless of this, my personal truth is, as a rule, not necessary or interesting to my neighbor. So why say it? If someone is interested in our truth, it is not a sin to tell them about it; but if they do not ask, then we may do well to not express it.
However, simple human truth often turns out to be objective. Does this mean that it must be told? Well, it is very likely that it must. But before that it will be useful to check your own honesty. To begin with, we note that we rarely have doubts about truths that are pleasant and easy: such truths do not lead to resentment or a conflict; and if a person is not bad-tempered and, as a result, is not inclined to thoughts like, “I will not praise my neighbor so that he won’t get puffed up with pride”; or the habit of not noticing the good and concentrating on the bad, then it’s easier for him to tell his neighbor positive truths.
Thus, he who wants to tell someone the truth must himself be truthful. You have probably often heard such complaints as: “I gave him a telling-off, but he...”; “I wish them well, but they...”; “I told her, ‘No one but me will tell you the truth,’ but she...” These and similar phrases are usually used to complain about how someone reacts to criticism. I must say, they react well enough. After all, if we do not take into account situations when a boss criticizes his subordinate, a craftsman criticizes his apprentice, or a teacher criticizes his student, we will come to the conclusion that, as a rule, those who are prone to criticism (even if it’s just) have no moral right to do it, and they criticize only “from the best of intentions”. What are these motives? To figure it out, let’s ask ourselves whether we feel like criticizing people we genuinely feel good about. Or those we love? For example, it is extremely hard for me to imagine a normal husband criticizing his beloved wife. And it’s not easy for me to imagine criticism between friends either. Will normal parents treat their child critically? True, we all have our sins and vices. But in normal families, spouses’ shortcomings are covered by love, children’s bad behavior is corrected by good upbringing, and for friends it is absolutely normal to accept each other as they are. Criticism is always mixed with passion, be it anger, irritation, jealousy, pride etc. Therefore, the desire to criticize could be more precisely characterized as the desire to say nasty things. And just criticism differs from unjust criticism in only one thing: It does not contain lies. However, there is no need for lies, because truth can be malicious, and justice can be pitiless. Ultimately, it is much more convenient for an evil and cruel person to use truth, since it gives his criticism an air of objectivity and justifies him in his own eyes.
Such is the truth. Now, our intentions and methods do not concern our neighbor, to whom we wanted to tell the truth, but ourselves. Does anyone still see themselves as having the moral right to tell someone the unpleasant truth?
“And what now?” you ask. Shouldn’t we tell the truth? Should we tell lies? Should we be hypocritical? By no means! A Christian must be truthful and honest. But above all truthful and honest with himself and in relation to himself. And in life you should learn to tell the truth first of all when a lie could have benefited you or covered your sin. Or when the truth can prevent slander, protect the weak and the defenseless, or prevent meanness and injustice. In general, always tell the truth when it comes with difficulty and requires courage, and when the final result of the truth is righteousness, and not a smug sense of being right.